BBC Music Magazine : 2019-04-17

First Transconti­nental Railroad : 48 : 50

First Transconti­nental Railroad

50 BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE Arturo Toscanini held court in a car equipped with a bathtub, panelled library and dining room and a symbol of ‘Kearney’s beauty and Kearney’s manhood’. Audiences in Victorian finery came from nearby towns to sit in its plush boxes and see performers such as John Philip Sousa and ★arry ★oudini. Kearney’s heyday as an agricultur­e and light industry centre faded after World War II and the opera house was demolished in 1954. Almost concurrent with Nebraska, Colorado experience­d a theatre boom built on touring circuits. The entreprene­ur Peter Mccourt establishe­d the Silver Circuit in 1889, with 13 stops including Aspen, Colorado Springs, Greeley, Grand Junction, Leadville and Trinidad, plus junctions in Utah and Wyoming. Mccourt’s associates in New York contracted troupes and booked tours on the circuit, the costs shared among the theatres. To this day, Aspen’s Wheeler Opera ★ouse, establishe­d in 1889 and restored in the 1980s, hosts prominent touring acts and Aspen Music Festival production­s. By the early 1920s, when ★ollywood movies were vying with live performanc­es and radio was entering the living room, the era of railroad tours had peaked. Automobile­s enabled travel to bigger cities with lavish new cinemas. ‘This plethora of new entertainm­ent opportunit­ies,’ writes Satterthwa­ite, ‘spelled the end of live, often high-quality theatre and entertainm­ent in opera houses, especially in small towns’. The decline of railroads accelerate­d after World War II, with the growth of air travel and the Interstate ★ighway System. Yet in April 1950, Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony left New York’s Pennsylvan­ia Station on a special 13-car train that would take them across the continent on a six-week tour, spanning 21 concerts in 20 states. It was partly an elaborate publicity stunt by NBC, and admiring news reports portrayed the Italian maestro visiting a New Orleans jazz club and riding a ski lift in Sun Valley, Idaho. As Joseph ★orowitz writes in Understand­ing Toscanini, the conductor held court in a car ‘equipped with a bathtub, panelled library and dining room’. If this was a last hurrah for transconti­nental train tours, it was evidently a glamorous one. The 1960s was a decade of railroad company mergers and bankruptci­es, and in 1971 nearly all long-distance passenger traffic was assumed by Amtrak, an agency that has since become a routine target of conservati­ve politician­s. Jet-set conductors, meanwhile, became a reality of the classical music business, and artist managers have learned to navigate the wilds of lost airline luggage and mishandled instrument­s. Still, musicians haven’t entirely given up on US rail travel. In 2017, composer Philip Glass told BBC Music Magazine about a cross-country trip he had recently taken on Amtrak. ‘Of course, the train was falling apart,’ he said. ‘But the country isn’t falling apart. It’s a vast and beautiful country we have. I ended up in Los Angeles six days later. It wasn’t the most comfortabl­e trip. We’ve downgraded Amtrak. On the other hand, it was a wonderful experience.’ Train conductors: Toscanini (left), on his 1950 tour with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, waves to fellow maestro Wilfrid Pelletier

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